Though it is rarely billed as such, December 10 is perhaps the world’s foremost geek holiday, because it’s the date upon which the Nobel Prizes are conferred each year. Recognizing the foremost scholars (in many cases, math-science nerds) in a half-dozen fields of study and distinction, the Nobels are arguably the most prestigious awards on the planet.

Which is probably why the history of Nobel Prizes is so steeped in quirks and controversies.

The average layperson is probably aware that the Nobels are named after, and endowed by the estate of, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the man who invented dynamite and who created the prizes as a posthumous apology for all the persons, places, and things that got blown up by his signature invention. What most folks don’t know is that the modern Nobel Prizes don’t precisely match up to the awards specified in old Alfred’s will.

First of all, Alfred Nobel only endowed five Nobel Prizes: Chemistry, Literature, Medicine, Peace, and Physics. The sixth Nobel, the one for distinction in Economics, is actually the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. In other words, somebody besides Alfred Nobel created and endows the Economics Prize, even though it’s awarded alongside, and referred to as one of, the original Nobels. Secondly, Nobel specifically requested that the awards go to individuals who accomplished something significant in the preceding year, but the Nobel committees generally ignore this rule for every prize except the Peace Prize, as scientific and literary accomplishments are best measured and appreciated over several years.

This brings us to a larger controversy: The debates over who should or should not have received Nobel Prizes, contrary to those who actually did or didn’t earn a Nobel medal. Rosalind Franklin, who was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and iconic Indian peace activist Mahatma Gandhi are perhaps the most famous examples of Nobel Prize oversights, though they are far from the only ones. Several worthy German recipients were prohibited from receiving the Nobels that they actually won during World War II because Adolf Hitler forbade any German citizen from accepting the award during his rule. And Hitler’s Nobel interference hardly stops there, as Nazi Germany’s activities actually caused two scientists to receive the only pair of “recycled” Nobel medals in history.


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German scientists Max von Laue, who won the 1914 Physics Nobel for his work on X-ray crystal diffraction, and James Franck, who won the 1925 Physics Nobel for the famous Franck-Hertz experiment that confirmed the Bohr atomic model, both possessed “recycled” Nobel medals. And it’s all thanks to the generous and ingenious efforts of another Nobel Laureate, George de Hevesy, who himself won the Chemistry Prize in 1943 for his work on isotope tracers.

When Nazism came to power in Germany and Hitler began his personal feud with the Nobel committee — especially after German anti-Nazi writer and activist Carl von Ossietzky won the 1935 Peace Prize — Franck and von Laue defied German law and sent their Nobel medals to Copenhagen, Denmark, for safe keeping. Unfortunately, Denmark proved a less than ideal hiding place once Germany invaded in 1940. This is when de Hevesy stepped in, dissolving von Laue and Franck’s medals in acid to prevent their capture by Nazi forces. De Hevesy preserved the acid solution and stored it at the Niels Bohr Institute, where no one would suspect what it contained.

Perhaps surprisingly, the solution remained undisturbed during the Nazi invasion and, after World War II, de Hevesy retrieved the solution and precipitated the gold from it. This gold was in turn given back to the Nobel committee, which recast von Laue and Franck’s medals from the original gold — though technically, the gold from each original respective medal is now intermixed with the other — effectively “recycling” their Nobel medals.

Officially, the Nobel committee does not issue replacement medals for those lost or stolen. The committee will create replica medals, as it did in the case of Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Literature Nobel, whose medal was stolen from West Bengal University. Thus, von Laue and Franck are the only persons to receive “original” Nobel medals twice.

That’s not just some ostentatious academic ornamentation; it’s a rousing recursive recognition’s worth of Geek Trivia.

The quibble of the week

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